Having grown up as the daughter of a man who wrote several books on child psychology and parenting, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture, didn’t have to wait for a personal crisis or media messaging and bestsellers to introduce her to the widely loved and often scrutinized self-help industry; she was born into it.
Most people seek the guidance and insight of self-improvement literature when they are going through a difficult or transitional time or seeking some form of change and transformation in their lives, which likely accounts for a good portion of the population at any given moment.
Regardless of whether someone goes looking for it, the presence and prevalence of the self-help industry is clearly reflected in society’s obsession with self-betterment. Retreats, seminars, conferences, and support groups draw throngs of devotees eager to change their ways and cultivate peace, prosperity, and contentment in their lives. Books like The Secret, The Power of Now, and The Artist’s Way are so widely read and heavily marketed that their authors have attained guru status. And while many find these books intriguing, inspirational, and transformative, others scoff at their claims.
In Promise Land, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro reveals the merits and shortcomings of self-help in a candid, witty exploration of the field that has been described as “a powerful blend of memoir, journalism, and social commentary.”
Recently, she took the time to share her thoughts in an interview with GoodTherapy.org.
How did you find your self-help explorations to be useful or necessary? Were there any experiences in particular that had a significant impact on you?
Jessica Lamb-Shapiro (JLS): One of the experiences that impacted me the most was visiting a grief camp for children who had lost a parent or sibling. My mother killed herself when I was two. Until then, I had never met anyone else who’d lost a parent as a child. Suddenly, I was surrounded by them.
I was really moved by their tenacity, their bravery, and their ability to still have fun. I learned a lot from watching them about how to deal with loss, even as an adult. And it also allowed me to grieve in a way that I’d never thought necessary before.
As strange as this sounds, I’d been afraid of feeling sad, as though the emotion would overwhelm and ruin me. But when I saw an eight-year-old expressing sadness and surviving, my fear seemed unwarranted and a little silly.
GT: How did you find self-help to be deceitful and dangerous? Again, were there any experiences that stick out in your mind as having left this impression?
JLS: On the whole, I think that self-help authors believe what they are selling and have good intentions. I think this is true of the women who wrote The Rules (a guide to marrying “Mr. Right”).
However, when I went to their class, a woman told us, “I am the ultimate Rules girl because I got married twice in one year!” She then detailed the abusive relationship she’d had with her first husband after following The Rules. She’d divorced that husband and started dating the very next day, never questioning The Rules (which claim that abuse doesn’t happen when you follow The Rules).
No one else seemed to find this tale disturbing.
GT: What role has your father’s interest and work in the self-help field played in shaping your unique perspective and experience of it? Are there any interactions, moments, or experiences that stand out in your mind as having been especially influential?
JLS: My father’s involvement in the self-help field has given me a complex relationship with it, which I think was helpful to me in writing this book. My first impulse was always to disbelieve self-help, since so much of it seems superficial and weird. But knowing my dad was writing self-help books, and knowing his intentions were good, helped me open my mind a bit. Not entirely, [however]. Even my dad has written some books he’s not especially proud of, and he’s one of the good ones.
As far as self-help’s influence, I never had a moment of epiphany. It was just something that was always around, but I’d never taken the time to really be thoughtful about [it] before.
GT: As you discuss in Chapter 1, there is a fairly straightforward formula to the inspirational stories that often accompany self-help books and ideologies: a person has something horrible or tragic happen or starts out in poverty, he or she has a revelation, and then success strikes.
In spite of their predictability, do you agree with the belief that these books have “transformative therapeutic powers with concrete, real-world results”?
JLS: I agree that these books have therapeutic potential (I wouldn’t use the word “powers”), but the transformative or concrete, real-world results generally rest with the individual reading the book. Believing otherwise is textbook magical thinking.
GT: What are your thoughts on self-help versus psychotherapy—or in conjunction with it?
JLS: Self-help is great for people who cannot afford or don’t have access to therapy. Much of it is written by therapists and contains time-tested, common sense solutions.
However, your average person doesn’t know how to separate the dross from the gold in self-help, and the media doesn’t help because it gravitates toward the sensational. It almost seems that the more outrageous the claim a book makes, the more popular it is (this would explain, somewhat, the popularity of The Secret).
Another problem is that self-help is written for a general audience, and thus contains general advice. A therapist, on the other hand, can take into account a patient’s specific history. The simple act of reading a book might make you feel better, but it will not change anything if you don’t take action. It’s possible that the good feeling one gets after reading a self-help book actually prevents change by placating us—a kind of mental opiate.
That said, I know a lot of therapists who recommend self-help books to their patients to supplement their therapy, and I think it’s a valuable supplemental tool.
GT: What’s one thing that fascinates you about self-help?
JLS: The way in which it affects all of us, even those of us who don’t read self-help books or actively engage in self-help culture. We are surrounded by motivational posters, aphorism-a-day calendars, and makeover television shows. Self-improvement is our national religion. Its ideology mirrors the American Dream. Even those of us who scoff at self-help culture still embrace some of its basic values. The fact that we’re not even aware we’re doing it is what makes self-help culture so insidious.
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